Will Japan prepared mean nature ruined?

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

“Resilience” is a hot topic these days — not in self-help books, but among policymakers worldwide. As governments become convinced that climate change is a real threat, they are taking steps to ensure communities can bounce back from the increasing impact of floods, storms, fires and droughts they will likely face in coming years.

In December 2013, Japanese lawmakers passed the Basic Law for National Resilience. Spurred by the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami — and the threat of even worse if anything similar occurs in Tokyo — they established a centralized “control tower” to identify and eliminate weaknesses in everything from skyscraper foundations to transportation networks to the energy supply.

But as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration gets to work on a detailed plan to disaster-proof the nation, civil-society groups are warning that the natural environment is at risk.

“The law includes no mechanism for an outside check on the necessity or environmental impact of projects,” said Izumi Nishijima, a member of the environment and pollution committee of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which came out against the law before its passage.

“A headquarters made up of Cabinet ministers and other members of the ruling government has been established, and that is where everything is being decided. We are extremely concerned because there is no guarantee whatsoever in the law that meetings or minutes will be public, or that the public will be allowed to participate.”

Although the law requires planners to listen to outside input, it doesn’t specify who decides where that input comes from. Minutes from the first meeting of the headquarters, which was closed to the public, were posted on the Cabinet website.

The headquarters is slated to present its first basic plan in late spring. Until then, it’s impossible to know exactly what projects will be funded — or how they will affect the natural environment. However, government officials insist money will not go solely to new sea walls, roads and other concrete-heavy construction projects.

“When you mention ‘strengthening the nation,’ a lot of people used to immediately think of public works, but it’s much broader than that,” said National Resilience Minister Keiji Furuya in a promotional video.

Indeed, though planned budget requests include funding for flood-control and back-up transportation networks — both of which may involve major construction works — they also cover improving training for fire brigades and bolstering emergency communication networks.

As for impacts on the natural environment, the law requires policymakers to “take into consideration symbiosis with nature and harmony with the environment” when planning projects.

But according to Tohru Nakashizuka, a forest ecologist at Tohoku University who was the sole voice for nature on the 14-member panel charged with shaping the basic principles behind the law, conservation was not among its key concerns.

“The panel decided that the first priority had to be avoiding massive loss of human life. The second was ensuring that the economy and other national systems continued to function. The environment was pretty low on the list,” Nakashizuka said.

The main threat considered by the panel — which did not include an expert on climate change — was an earthquake rocking Tokyo, Osaka or other major cities.

Nakashizuka said he tried to familiarize panelists with the increasingly popular concept of “ecosystem-based disaster-risk reduction.” He talked about how zoning laws can be changed to prevent people from living in dangerous areas like flood plains; how urban parks can provide cool havens during fires; and how seaside forests can buffer minor tsunamis. But in the end, he said, all that mostly lost out to a construction-based approach to “resilience.”

That’s what worries Ryuichi Yokoyama, director of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. “If a river overflows and people can escape before it reaches them, it’s not a problem. But the backers of this law want to prevent the river from overflowing. The only way to do that is to cover it entirely with concrete, which is impossible. So the construction work continues endlessly.

“The emphasis of this law seems to be on supplying continuous public-works projects. Why is that desirable? Because it keeps the money flowing. And the site for all these projects is the natural environment,” he said.

However, some safeguards do exist. Environmental impact assessment laws require studies to be carried out when weighing projects such as expressways and large dams — but sea walls, river embankments and most small-scale construction projects are exempted.

Those loopholes are one reason environmental lawyer Nishijima is so concerned about the lack of public oversight in the new national resilience law. She believes it undermines broader trends in Japan’s legal system, such as a 1997 amendment to the River Law requiring extensive public participation when dams are planned.

“This law takes us in the opposite direction,” she said. “To be moving backwards within that context of general progress toward consideration for the environment and greater public participation is extremely problematic.”